Tending the Flock

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Are today’s HR practices really living out the ideologies of the human relations approach?

Although it sounds like a cliche, there is truth to the adage that an organization’s most important asset is its people. If you accept this premise, then it should be readily apparent why human resources (HR) departments came to be and remain necessary. The modern version serves a variety of functions that together are designed to ensure the viability of a vital asset or resource, i.e. the workers (hence the title “human resources”). This role and the attitudes that defined it are hardly consistent with the philosophical intent of the original human resources approach.

The main purpose of HR today could be loosely characterized as “tending the flock” of workers: administering their benefits, determining compensation, defining job descriptions, recruiting, hiring, managing layoffs, evaluating job performance, mediating disputes, providing professional development, and more.

Some of these functions are consistent with the principle of classical HR theory that holds that the prosperity of the organization depends in large part on its ability to enable what Maslow called “self-actualization” of its employees (Eisenberg, Goodall, & Trethewey, 2014, p. 82). For example, HR departments administer professional development programs and training, Screen shot 2015-07-26 at 5.17.08 PMand help manage each employee’s advancement up through the ranks. In that regard, the HR department fulfills the ideal of helping workers evolve to their fullest potential, by facilitating growth and otherwise bringing the organization’s resources to bear on their behalf.

But these roles are small and lower priority in comparison with other concerns for the organization, such as payroll and benefits management. Human resource departments today seem to be primarily in the business of recruitment and retention of workers. Promising self-actualization has become a means to these two ends, rather than a goal in and of itself.

Maslow theorized that the effort to achieve self-actualization inherently serves the organization by aligning its goals with those of its employees (Eisenberg et al., 2014, p. 82). Likert’s principle of supportive relationships places a high value on employee engagement and “participative management” within the organization (p. 85). Of course, the reaScreen shot 2015-07-26 at 5.02.40 PMlization of both ideals is often undermined by politics, power, privilege and other factors in organizational cultures. For example, practical reality in the workplace (if not society at large) holds that although everyone may be considered equal, some are “more equal than others.” In other words, lower level workers may have a harder time becoming self-actualized than managers and other personnel viewed as more talented or valuable to the organization.

The human resources approach places a high priority on employee wellbeing and engagement, essentially promising that if management put the needs of the worker at the forefront in most if not all decisions, the organization will prosper. But most organizations today treat employees less as their most important asset worthy of that consideration, and more like a commodity. The evidence is writ large in business news feeds every day. When a company is in financial trouble, layoffs are the most likely first step management takes in the attempt to improve profitability. Senior executives rarely put the needs of employeesScreen shot 2015-07-26 at 4.59.48 PM first or engage them in finding solutions to problems (never mind accepting a pay cut themselves) before taking steps that directly affect the workers’ livelihoods such as cutting benefits, closing plants or divesting divisions. Those don’t sound like behaviors that are consistent with the theories of Maslow, McGregor or Likert.

Unfortunately, contemporary HR practices largely reflect the mentality of workers as being expendable, which is far removed from human resources ideology. Rather than strongly advocating for workers and their active and vital involvement in organizational affairs, the HR function is often little more than maintaining the herd and doing management’s bidding.

Is it an appropriate role of an organization to overtly help each employee self-actualize, or “be all they can be?”  Further, is it appropriate for an organization to tie its prospects to the worker’s ability or desire to self-actualize? 

REFERENCES:

Eisenberg, E.M., Goodall, H.L., Jr., & Trethewey, A. (2014). Organizational Communication: Balancing Creativity and Constraint (7th ed.). Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s. (ISBN: 978-1-4576-0192-7).

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5 thoughts on “Tending the Flock

  1. Hi Adam,

    Great post! I agree that the heart of an organization is its people. While organizations offer certain benefits like training programs and classes, part of me wonders the motivation behind having them. Is it in fact to promote employee satisfaction, or is it to grow the “super employee”? Sure, human resource departments have activities focused on employee well-being, but there are probably some upper-level executives hoping that these activities will lead to a more competent and educated employee. As far as your question, I think it is appropriate for human resource departments to help employees self-actualize. Since they are there to “protect the people”, it’s only right that they help employees reach their fullest potential. While it shouldn’t be the total focus for human resource employees, I think an employee’s potential for self-actualization and his/her work abilities combined should be assessed when thinking about employee participation and the organizational landscape.

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  2. Adam, I believe that it is absolutely appropriate for an organization to help employees “be all they can be” because recruitment and retention are the bread and butter of any successful organization. You were spot on when you mentioned that human resources places employee wellbeing as a high priority but everything is all fun and games until budget cuts have to be made and employees are the first to go. The contradiction is obvious here. Cliché or no cliché, an organization’s most important asset is its people. Any organization who does not embrace this ideology is on a destructive path. Take Circuit City for instance; among many other mistakes, the way they treated their employees put the period on the end of their death sentence. After Circuit City spun off CarMax, they terminated many management positions with the transaction. Additionally, their other blunders caused them to lose more money but instead of sacrificing other expenses, sales team commission was removed and over 3400 people were fired. Where is Circuit City now? Nothing but a distant memory standing in the wake of the new electronic retail Giant; Best Buy. It is appropriate for an organization to tie its prospects to their desire to self-actualize because you are more likely to attract candidates who strive to be tenured and contribute to the company’s bottom line.

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  3. I agree with Titiana, a company should provide its employees with at least the basic opportunities for career development and advancement, otherwise what are they working for? In management you should want to retain the most talented and promote the most qualified and if I, as an employee, have development needs to get to where I want to go, I feel the organization should invest in me as I have in them. I really enjoyed your blog ,one comment you made really stuck with me… “Contemporary HR practices largely reflect the mentality of workers as being expendable” and I would unfortunately have to agree, especially when it comes to the lower-level workers, they are always the first to be let go if need be. Also, your visuals were fantastic!

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  4. Hello Adam, I really like the “herd” symbolism. There are so many, many companies that do indeed treat their employed as sheep needing to told what to do and how. Very rarely do we hear about HR representation presenting anything to the people they serve from the foundation of Maslow and other Human Relation experts. We have become people who expect so little from the management departments that we “answer to”. We can’t expect people who don’t offer investments into their staff member’s self actualization and growth. Great post with such appropriate visuals!

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  5. Adam, good post! I have to agree with you, sadly, when you say “But most organizations today treat employees less as their most important asset worthy of that consideration, and more like a commodity.” I frequently come across news stories and have observed firsthand how employee layoffs are the first “solution” to management to improve profitability. It seems more often than not that a company’s people are not regarded as its best “asset” as they should be. Helping people self-actualize and become all they can be should be considered an investment–by supporting people in this regard they are developing highly capable workers and reducing their risk of turnover.

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